Time for a Break by Dr Helen Street

polar bearThere was much talk, and indeed much trying out, of brain breaks at the Australian Positive Schools conference series this year. I talked about the value of brain breaks in building class cohesion, whereas keynote presenters, Justin Robinson and Maggie Dent, each got the entire audience participating in brain breaks during their presentations.


Brain breaks were also featured at last year’s Positive School’s events supporting our 2015 focus on physical health. ACHPER’s Rick Baldock provided some great examples and ensured the audience remained alert and energized throughout each day.


So what exactly are brain breaks? Are they really worth doing or simply an ad hoc novelty. And how and why should we incorporate them into classroom life?


The term ‘brain break’ refers to any short activity that is designed to re-energize a person, or group of people, during a period of continued mental concentration (i.e. in class!).  Activities may last from 30 seconds to five minutes. They generally involve movement, some degree of mild personal challenge and an opportunity to have fun.


For example – Justin Robinson asked everyone to participate in ‘Thumbs Up’ during his Positive Schools 2016 presentation on building relationships. ‘Thumbs Up’ can easily be played in your classroom with kids of any age:


  1. Ask everyone to stand up and face another person – so that everyone is in a pair.
  2. Show everyone three variations on a ‘thumbs up’ hand signal using both hands: thumbs up facing your partner, thumbs up held out to the right of your body or thumbs up held to the left of your body.
  3. Ask each pair to tap their thighs with the palms of their hands in unison with each other and then randomly produce one of the three ‘thumbs up’ hand signals (at the same time as each other).
  4. If both members of a pair chose the same thumbs up movement they tap their thighs and then clap. This is followed by a return to the beginning of the sequence, where they again tap their thighs and choose a ‘thumbs up’ position.
  5. If the ‘thumbs up’ movements chosen are different for each member of the pair, they start again instantly – they tap their thighs and choose another thumbs up position (any one of the three choices).
  6. Each pair continues without stopping for two minutes.


The above activity, like many brain breaks, is simple to understand, but surprisingly engaging and fun to do. In fact, brain breaks are a great asset to every classroom in a multitude of ways. As with the above example, they provide everyone with a positive and beneficial mental break from academic learning.


Brain breaks offer an opportunity for students to refocus, re-energize and let go of physical and emotional tension. They are also a great opportunity to add small intervals of exercise into an otherwise sedentary class. Remember that as a teacher you are probably moving around for much of your class time – unlike the students sitting still at their desks.


So, are there any negative consequences of using brain breaks? I am aware that many suggested brain breaks can get very noisy, and this can lead teachers to feel anxious about ‘wasting time’ pulling back the class’ attention. In reality, due to their powerful, positive effect on the class, brain breaks counter disruption and disengagement. They might result in a noisy two minutes of class time but, happy kids are noticeably quick to resettle and participate with renewed focus on learning.


Brain breaks are also great tools for building class cohesion. They offer an effective and simply way to help build a positive identity for the class, creating a sense of belonging for class members. They also help to positively reinforce reltionships between class members, increasing a sense of connection for all.


I have seen the emotional energy in an entire room lifted whenever two minutes are given over to a fun activity like the ‘Thumbs Up’ example given here.  Have a look on Google to seek out lots of other great ideas – think clapping games, balance challenges and co-ordination activities.


We all know that it is hard to concentrate on learning for more than 20 minutes at a time but, our desire to cover as much curriculum ground as possible, can mean we end up teaching non-stop for 45 minutes or longer. Try adding a brain break into the middle of every lesson – and notice the difference in the room.


Whenever I have used brain breaks, I find that two minutes of well used ‘time out’ adds enormous value to all that ‘time in’.



Dr Helen Street is an education consultant, author, presenter and chair of The Positive Schools Initiative. She can be contacted via The University of Western Australia, The Positive Schools website or The Positive Times.

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